Yell proposed island prison, closing Folsom, San Quentin
Archibald Yell, the new warden at Folsom State Prison, sought to stop contraband, improve job prospects for the incarcerated population, and shake up the prison system. He is one of many reform-minded wardens who helped shaped today’s CDCR.
Shortly after his 1903 appointment as warden, Yell advocated closing Folsom and San Quentin prisons in favor of building a new island facility. The former Mendocino County District Attorney appeared eager to make changes.
His idea was way ahead of its time, pitched decades before the activation of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. His reasoning was sound for the time. Back then, transportation over muddy, wagon-rutted roads was difficult and expensive, making waterways were the preferred mode of travel.
Yell’s proposal pointed to cheaper shipping would be cheaper and a safer institution, making it more difficult to smuggle contraband.
“An island of 10 or 20 acres could be purchased (using funds from the) sale of the two prisons. The state could (erect) suitable modern prison buildings (cheaper) than remodeling the present sites,” Yell wrote in 1904.
He suggested the new prison could be located on an inland 10 or 20 miles off the coast. While his proposal never took root, a federal prison – Alcatraz – was built on an island a few decades later.
Warden fights for water to help those working, living at prison
Abandoning his earlier idea, Yell turned his attention to improving the quality of life at Folsom prison.
“Warden Yell confirmed he has taken possession of the head gate of the dam on the American River,” reported the San Francisco Call, Sept. 21, 1905.
Warden Yell didn’t mince words regarding his reasons for taking swift action, essentially restoring the dam to the prison’s control.
“I am tired of begging a corporation for water (and) I think the director felt the same way,” he said. “We have taken charge of the head gate (but) I do not know what legal steps the Sacramento Electric, Gas and Railway Company will take to regain possession.”
Helping those hit by the 1906 earthquake
On April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake devastated the city, killing roughly 3,000 people. The state’s prisons were quick to respond with help.
“This afternoon a carload of flour will arrive (at the prison) from the Sacramento Relief Committee and tonight it will be baked into bread to be sent to San Francisco tomorrow morning. This will be repeated every day as long as necessary,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 22, 1906. “Warden Yell went among the convicts and picked certain ones to do the extra work. They (are eager to) help the suffering people.”
He also pushed for more job training opportunities, and earnings, for the incarcerated population.
“The warden thinks the prisoners should have (more diverse) work so they can put their time in at a profit to themselves and the state as well,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 20, 1906.
Folsom finally starts getting walls; other states learn from Yell
Under Yell’s watch, work began on the prison wall.
“For years Folsom has been noted because of the fact that it is the only large prison in the world, except island prisons, (without) walls surrounding it,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 25, 1907. “With the completion of the present work, however, the institution will lose this distinction. The construction of the wall is a very large undertaking, as it will be over a mile in length, and will require several years to complete. Progress has been made, however, during the short time since the work started. The granite for the wall is being taken from the prison quarries.”
A Utah prison warden visited Folsom prison for several days to study Yell’s methods.
“Warden Yell is a very capable prison official and is deserving of much credit for the manner in which the institution is conducted. From what I know of condition at the prison prior to his incumbency, I believe that the prison directors were fortunate in securing the services of Yell at the time they did. He certainly has great executive ability,” visiting Warden Pratt said.
Yell also served in state assembly, senate
In February 1908, Yell retired.
“To show their appreciation of him, the guards recently presented him with a fine gold watch and chain,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 5, 1907. “The presentation speech was made by Guard Robert Merrill. Warden Yell lately received notification that he had been elected vice president of the American Association of Prison Wardens.”
Yell was a state assemblyman, state senator and later the city attorney for Sacramento.
His 1921 obituary sheds some light on his long career.
“When Yell came to California at the age of 17 years, he immediately began the study of law, and later became district attorney of Mendocino County. Subsequently, he was elected to the Assembly from that district and on making an enviable record in that department of the legislature, was elected state senator,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 19, 1921. “After completing his term in the legislature, Yell moved to Sacramento. At one time, Yell was made warden of Folsom penitentiary, and in that position won new laurels for himself.
“Yell was regarded an authority on municipal law, and ably represented this city at state conventions of municipal officials while city attorney,” the paper reported. “His opinions were highly regarded and were frequently used in other communities. He possessed undaunted courage, as was evidenced when he quelled a prison break at Folsom shortly after being appointed warden there in 1904.”
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Learn more about California prison history.